Rated M, 1 hr 18 mins
Screening at Dendy, Canberra
Review by © Jane Freebury
Obstacles that directors face on film shoots range from the trivial to the legion that sink projects altogether. They very nearly sank Benjamin Gilmour’s project when he arrived in Pakistan with lead actor Sam Smith only to discover that permission to film was withdrawn and funding for cinematographer and crew had evaporated.
Gilmour could have at this point declared the difficulties ‘insurmountable’ but instead acted swiftly and decisively. He bought a second-hand camera and crossed the border to do the shoot in Afghanistan, which was, after all, where his narrative was set. Pakistan was only meant to be a stand-in.
This is some backstory. It points to a rivetting tale beyond the frame, the stuff of difficult shoots that have great documentaries made like Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha. However, the long list of people Gilmour thanks in the credits also points to a big collaborative behind-the-scenes effort, crowd-sourced funding and a degree of luck.
Set in the streets of Kabul and in remote villages and caves in the mountain regions, Jirga tells of the journey made by Mike Wheeler (Smith), a former Australian soldier, to find the family of a man he shot by mistake during a raid three years earlier. The simplicity of this journey of the soul, a return to the heart of darkness of Mike’s military career, suits it well.
After a frenetic opening flashback in lurid green night vision accompanied by the rat-a-tat-tat of small arms fire, the pace slows as Mike finds his way around in Afghanistan, second time round. His journey takes on more insidious dangers as he negotiates the markets and cafes to get transport from Kabul to Kandahar. No, no, and no, his hosts and helpers say, the province is crawling with Taliban. It’s just too dangerous.
Needless to say, like the filmmaker, Mike won’t take ‘no’ for an answer either and finally manages to persuade his taxi driver to drive him beyond, Bamyan, the first destination agreed to. Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad, who was the father in Gilmour’s first film Son of a Lion (2007), makes a very personable taxi driver.
It isn’t long before Mike becomes a guest of a group of Taliban (played by former Taliban). Instead of killing him or taking the wads of useless dollars he has brought with him, they deliver him to the very village he has been looking for. There he puts his fate in the hands of the Afghan court of tribal elders, the jirga.
However, it is not the elders who have the last word. They leave it to the most directly affected to decide Mike’s fate. Not a thoroughly convincing outcome, however, but where else could it conceivably be taken?
What is remarkable in Jirga is the journey through the magnificent landscapes of Afghanistan, and the connections that are made along the way.
In some scenes, the camera goes extremely wide as Mike’s taxi beetles past brooding, hulking mountain ranges that look older than time. In other scenes, he is in two-shot with his redoubtable driver, tapping tin bowls and plucking guitar strings as they make music for each other, because it is the only language that they share.
The wonderful score by AJ True is another pleasure, as are the surprises. Such as another contribution, that comes from Smith, who plays a composition of his own to his driver on an old guitar he bought along the way. When words can’t be found, music says it all.